Telling showdown with Vitoria on deck

Mac TA hosts Caja Laboral in search of both identity and maiden win in Top 16 Euroleague campaign.

Maccabi Tel Aviv Devin Smith 370 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Maccabi Tel Aviv Devin Smith 370
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
It wasn’t just that Maccabi Tel Aviv was beaten by Montepaschi Siena in its Euroleague Top 16 opener last week, it was decisively outplayed.
While any defeat is damaging, the loss in Italy likely raised more concern than usual among the highly-strung Maccabi management and especially head coach David Blatt.
Perhaps particularly worrying was the fact that Maccabi couldn’t compete with a Siena team viewed as no more than a dark horse in the battle for a topfour finish in Group F and qualification for the quarterfinal playoffs.
Considering all of the above, Tel Aviv already finds itself with its back against the wall as it enters Thursday’s second Top 16 game against Caja Laboral Vitoria at Nokia Arena.
With the Top 16 schedule expanding to 14 games this season, it would be misleading to describe the showdown with Vitoria as a must-win encounter.
However, a home defeat and an 0-2 start for Maccabi before it has even faced what are considered to be the group’s strongest sides in Barcelona, Olympiacos and Khimki Moscow could well prove to be the beginning of the end for Tel Aviv.
“We are facing one of the strongest teams in Europe,” Blatt said on Wednesday.
“We lost last week and we really need this win at home. This is a critical game because if we want to progress we need to find a way to win our home games.
“I don’t think that pressure should play too much of a role,” he added. “If you prepare well and are ready both physically and mentally than you might feel some excitement, but pressure should be less of a factor.”
A traditional Euroleague powerhouse, Vitoria looked set to miss out on the Top 16 for a second straight season after beginning its campaign with six defeats from its first seven games.
However, Caja would comeback from a 17-point deficit on the way to a 64-62 win over Armani Milano to claim the first of three consecutive victories to finish regular season Group C with a 4-6 record and progress to the Top 16.
Vitoria, which replaced long-time coach Dusko Ivanovic with Zan Tabak during its early-season slide, continued to gather momentum last week, beating defending Euroleague champion Olympiacos 82-74 in its Top 16 opener, extending its winning streak to four games and snapping the Greeks’ at seven.
The Spaniards, who are in second place in local league play with a 12-3 record, were led to the win by Maciej Lampe, who scored a career-high 25 points, bettering his previous best by six points, which he set as a Maccabi player in November 2009.
However, Lampe, who has averaged 16.5 points and 6.2 rebounds in Caja’s four-game winning streak, didn’t even complete the season at Maccabi, being released in January 2010 after failing to live up to expectations.
“I think the important thing for us is to be patient,” said Lampe, who is one of five Caja players to average more than nine points per contest, leading a list that includes Andres Nocioni (10.9 PPG), Nemanja Bjelica (10 PPG), Fernando San Emeterio (9.2 PPG) and Brad Oleson (9 PPG).
“A lot of times we tend to try to rush our offense and improvise. If we just keep playing our game, we’ll have a good chance to win. Maccabi is aggressive on defense, they get in the passing lanes and pressure full-court.
“We have to also be prepared for a physical game since they’ve got a lot of good athletes, and we need to make the least mistakes possible.”
Blatt will be hoping new signing Darko Planinic and the underachieving Malcolm Thomas can help with the crucial job of defending Lampe, which is set to be shouldered mainly by Shawn James.
The American center has been a revelation in his second season with the yellow- and-blue.
James, who has been struggling with a shoulder injury this week, got the campaign off to a slow start, but has prospered since the midway point of the regular season, averaging 14 points on 83.3 percent shooting (30 of 36), as well as 7.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks, over his last five games.
“The players know when they haven’t played so well and take responsibility for that,” Blatt said regarding last week’s performance in Siena. “My responsibility is to know how to lift them.
“The important thing is that we play with passion and desire. I like the way we have been training ahead of this game and I think we will be ready.”
On TV: Maccabi Tel Aviv vs Caja Laboral Vitoria (live on Channel 10 at 9:05 p.m.)